It’s one thing to understand how to color grade on a purely technical level, but it takes a deeper understanding of the psychology of color grading to achieve the greatest emotional impact with your audience.
Ultimately, your audience doesn’t care which software you used to color grade your film, or how many hours you spent tinkering with power windows and tracking.
As filmmakers, we get wrapped up in these technicalities, and they often distract us from the bigger picture.
What the audience really cares about, is how your color grade makes them feel.
I don’t mean to discount the importance of the technical aspects of color…
But technical accuracy is a starting point, not the finish line. To leave the biggest mark on your audience, your images can’t just be accurate, they have to say something emotionally. They must be in creative harmony with the story you’re telling.
I would place color second only to musical score with respect to its influence on the audience experience.
Certain color palettes draw the viewer in and create a sense of comfort, while others isolate the viewer and make them feel disoriented. Just as some create a nostalgic atmosphere while others evoke tension and grit.
Below I’ve broken down each major component of the color grading pipeline – from color temperature to color contrast – explaining how each variable plays a unique role in the emotional experience of your audience.
Keep in mind what follows is my personal opinion and philosophy. It is based on my experience color grading thousands of hours of film, tv, and digital media, but that does not make it absolute.
Ultimately, you have to follow your gut to arrive at the optimal color palette. I hope that you use the principles that follow as a guide, but also develop your own methodology through experimentation.
Warm Vs. Cool
There is perhaps no better starting place for this discussion than an overview of color temperature.
More-so than any other variable on this list, color temperature has the most obvious and immediate impact on the audience’s emotional experience.
One of the easiest ways the skew the emotion of your audience is by simply favoring one side of the color spectrum over another.
On the most basic level, you have warmth (orange) on one end of the color spectrum, and cold (blue) on the other end. The further your image’s color balance is skewed in either direction, the more obvious the difference in emotional tone.
Warm color palettes typically feel inviting and soft, while cold palettes feel more clinical and raw. This is why a romantic comedy is more likely to lean toward warmth, while an action thriller may lean toward cold.
Below is an example of the exact same image graded twice: #1 with a warm palette and #2 with a cool palette. Just looking at the images next to each others creates an entirely different emotion –
Think about what comes to mind when you hear the word warmth. For me, it’s a sunny beach, a hot shower, a relaxing day. That’s the natural emotion of the color.
The natural emotion of the word cold is very different. It might make you think of a blizzard, icy roads, a shiver down your spine.
And that’s just based on the word itself, without a visual component.
The emotional undercurrent of color has nothing to do with cinema and everything to do with our own natural psychology. The feelings any given color evoke in an individual will be similar whether they read the word, hear it spoken, or see it visually on film.
This is why I find it helpful to visualize a color palette in my mind before even using DaVinci Resolve to color. I try to tap into my mind’s perception of a color (or color combination) before pushing around my palette without any real direction. This removes a lot of the guesswork, and helps me get to a final grade much faster.
I know instinctively that a warmer image will make the viewer feel more comfortable, while a cooler image will make them feel more unsettled. It’s just how we’re wired.
That said, there are often instances where you might want to flip this. For example, you might use a warm color palette to intentionally misdirect the audience, creating a false sense of calm that will be subverted by an unexpected plot twist.
It’s also worth noting that warmer colors are associated with older, aged images, while colder colors are associated with more current or futuristic constructs.
In my mind this is entirely due to the ubiquity of the sepia look. Hollywood has long used the sepia effect (essentially a brown wash on your footage) to symbolize, old, aged film prints of a bygone era.
So naturally when we see something with a very warm/desaturated wash (like the image below), we know it’s supposed to feel old –
Similarly, we associate extreme cold color temperatures with the future. Most sci-fi films have color palettes that are bleak and frigid, with blue and purple tones throughout.
But a warm color palette doesn’t always look old and a cold color palette doesn’t always look new… Especially when either palette is approached tastefully and is not over-done in the grade.
Only when color temperature is pushed to an extreme (and combined with other techniques) do we feel like it’s telling us something about the time period.
In most cases, color temperature is best approached in moderation. It’s not about beating the viewer over the head with heavy handed color grades. It’s about subtly pushing your colors warmer or cooler to either re-enforce or subvert the emotional intent.
Color Balance Vs Color Stylization
A well balanced shot is simply a shot with highly accurate colors. If your whites look white (not yellow or blue) and your blacks look black (without any color cast), you’re probably working with a very balanced and natural image.
Getting your image to this point is always the first step in your pipeline, as I talk here in my article on the order of operations.
But for some films, this step can also be an end point. Because this is the most “truthful” color palette you can offer your audience.
This is why most documentary films are color corrected for accuracy, but not color graded for stylization. As a documentary filmmaker, you want your audience to believe you are presenting a non-distorted picture of reality. It has to be objective.
It’s much harder to appear to be objective when you are obviously stylizing your image in any direction (warm, cold, desaturated, etc.). So for some genres, namely documentary, aiming for a very neutral color balance is optimal.
The same goes for narrative films that have a more natural, cinema verite feel. I can’t imagine watching a masterpiece like 2 Days 1 Night and having the same response if the colors were over-cooked as opposed to looking almost documentary-like.
Below is a screenshot as an example, note the neutral color balance and natural tones –
That said, certain film genres – most notably horror and sci-fi – are all about stylization. It’s what makes them so fun.
You don’t go into a slasher movie looking for truth the same way you would a documentary. You want to suspend your disbelief and get thrown into another world, and an untruthful color palette helps get you there.
This is where color stylization comes into play. By creating an obvious visual look for your film, you are subtly guiding your audiences emotion by setting up certain expectations.
Imagine sitting down in the theater to watch a new movie you know nothing about. The first image appears and it’s a close up drenched in dark red tones and heavy shadows… You instantly know you’re about to watch a horror flick.
Even something a little less heavy handed can have a similar impact. Take this screenshot from Suspiria (2018) as an example –
The shot above isn’t over-stylized by any stretch. But it’s far more stylized than the 2 Days 1 Night example, and evokes a very different feeling.
There are a thousand ways to stylize your image of course, and each type of stylization has its own impact on the viewer experience.
No matter which aesthetic you’re working with though, the further you push your colors from a neutral balance, the more stylized your image becomes. And the more stylized it becomes, the more the audience is prepared to suspend their collective disbelief.
This phenomena is similar to what we experience with animation in many respects. When you watch an animated film, you don’t question a talking dog, because it’s a cartoon. You’ve gone in with a willingness to suspend your disbelief, because the visual aesthetic takes you out of reality from the get-go.
To a lesser extent, the same is true with respect to color palette. A neutral color palette tells the audience this is an honest story, rooted in some degree of realism. A stylized palette tells them they are about to go on a ride, and they better buckle up.
Again, you can always invert this and use an opposite approach to your creative advantage too.
Saturated Vs Desaturated
There is no more obvious case to be made for the impact of color on the human mind, than by simply placing any image side by side with its monochrome copy.
Look at how the mood of these two images completely shifts from color to black and white –
A colorful/saturated palette creates a sense of vibrancy and expansiveness that tantalizes the viewer. A de-saturated palette on the other hand, is bleak and narrow, which focuses the viewer more acutely.
Consider what happens to people who lose one of their senses – their other senses gain strength. Without eyesight (for instance) humans naturally develop stronger hearing capabilities to compensate for their visual loss.
Similarly, when you remove information from your visuals (namely color saturation), you force the viewer to activate their mind in a different way. Without the “distraction” of full blown color, the audience has no choice but to pay more mind to other visual elements – namely composition, contrast, and framing.
In the example above, the first image looks beautiful because of the natural scenery and colors. But the second image is more dramatic, since your eye isn’t distracted by the blue sky or fluffy clouds, and is instead drawn toward the subject.
Your film doesn’t need to be entirely desaturated (black and white) either to evoke a similar emotion.
Some films have achieved beautiful results by reducing saturation to the halfway point. This helps to focus the viewer much like monochrome cinematography, while still taking advantage of mild stylization by way of a muted color palette.
Creating a highly saturated image has the very opposite effect. While desaturation tends to emphasize the character (by focusing the viewer), saturation tends to emphasize the world by broadening the proverbial “field of view.”
This is why watching Mad Max in color vs. “Black and Chrome” is a totally different experience –
When pushed to the limit, a high saturation image is an incredible tool for evoking the feeling of excess. Think about the color palette in Spring Breakers, which is so drenched in color it’s almost nauseating, but perfect for the story –
Most films don’t call for extreme saturation (or desaturation), but even subtle differences in color levels can have a profound effect on the viewer.
Dial your saturation up and you expand the world and stimulate the viewer’s visual experience. Dial it down and bring other elements into sharper focus by embracing simplicity.
High Contrast Vs Low Contrast
While more subtle than some of the other elements on this list, contrast still plays a very unique role in the emotional perception of your work.
In my experience, contrast is directly correlated to tension. At least from a psychological standpoint.
High contrast images with deep blacks and sharp whites offer a visual intensity that low contrast images lack. Conversely, low contrast images with lifted blacks and rolled off highlights create a dream-like quality that you won’t get with heavier contrast ratios.
Take the image below as example of the impact that contrast alone can have. Image #1 has low levels of reduced contrast and Image #2 has high levels of boosted contrast. Again, the mood is entirely different –
Historically, high contrast grades are often paired with action films, thrillers, gritty dramas, or other movies with a similar emotional intensity. By pitting heavy shadows against bright highlights, a natural tension is created that sends a psychological cue to the viewer.
Low contrast grades have the exact opposite effect, and are often used to create a softer, dream-like presence in everything from romantic comedies to art house dramas. They diffuse tension rather than create tension, by adding a layer of separation between the viewer and the visuals. Much like how a photo-realistic painting can look like a photo, but will always feel dreamier.
Like color temperature, there are also time-frame connotations associated with contrast. Low contrast images have long been associated with older periods/aged film, while higher contrast is associated with a more modern aesthetic.
This is starting to change though, as many modern films (shot on cameras with extremely high dynamic range) have a softer natural contrast than the 35mm films from yesteryear. I would assume that as the years go on, we will collectively stop associating low contrast images with old movies, since many new movies are now low-contrast by design.
In any case, contrast is one of the best tools you have at your disposal to play with tension. Just be careful not to push things too far, as too much or too little contrast can be incredibly distracting to the viewer. A little push goes a long way.
Combining Color Principles
Everything I’ve outlined so far should give you a solid foundation for approaching your grades from an emotional level.
But the real power of color grading is achieved by combining and applying these principles in new and unique ways.
For instance, a warm image with both high contrast and high saturation will have an entirely different emotional feel to that same image with low saturation levels. One will feel vibrant and rich, the other thin and somber.
Similarly, a saturated image with cool tones will evoke a very different emotional response if it colored subtly as opposed to heavily stylized.
And just as importantly, the material you apply these techniques to matters above all else.
Sometimes you need to be “on the nose” with your color grades, and simply use your palette to slightly augment the existing emotion of the story. In other instances you are better served by doing the very opposite – venturing into the unexpected and surprising the audience with your choice.